What a delight to be invited to dream a new art world, offer new perspectives, and potentially build a better future for the field of curating. We rarely get the chance to imagine publicly what art institutions can not only look like but feel like. With this letter, I wanted to suggest alternative ways of navigating through our field. These suggestions come from different experiences, professional or otherwise, that I use in my life and in my curatorial practice. The goal here is to help me build environments for myself, other curators, and artists to live and thrive in a system not made for us.
First, we must look at art institutions and curatorial practices through an anti-capitalist lens. Even if looking at our workplace through that notion seems oxymoronic, I believe it can make a substantial difference within museums, galleries, and other art spaces. Collaboration, care, non-hierarchy, and sharing resources rather than hoarding them, are some anti-capitalist strategies that can make curatorial work go forward and make our field supportive and sustainable. Living our life rather than spending it working is, for me, the main anti-capitalist tool for curators. Living and enjoying life does not create financial capital, but is necessary to be healthy, to grow, and to better see and understand perspectives that are not ours. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King wrote “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” If we don’t have the time to live, where will we find the time to understand various lived experiences? How are you going to find different tools to share these stories, in our case, through exhibition-making?
I used to work at an artist-run center where we worked horizontally as a team of cultural workers and community members to develop an artistic program that was experimental, socially engaged, and supportive of emerging practices. I was lucky to work at a center where we strived to offer better pay to employees and offer wellness support since their structure does not permit benefits or insurances. Artist-run centers in Canada are fully funded by various levels of governments with little to no private donations; they cannot afford to create a union that would allow common insurance and pension plans. Members of these centers pay a membership fee, but often symbolic, it is not enough to support the center’s operations. Nevertheless, we strived to pay artists at the highest pay grade possible, based on Canadian federal and provincial fee rates. The horizontal structure was not perfect, but there was no single curatorial voice. Instead, the artistic program was built with and around a community of artists and members of the center, without hierarchy between self-taught and educated artists and no need to be considered a professional to participate in the discussion. This structure also allowed us the freedom to build tools including an anti-oppression policy which guided our decision-making and our institutional alignment.
While working there, and working as an independent curator, I organized exhibitions that focused on pressing concerns, including the impact of technology on self-image, transnationalism, sexism, and racism. I co-curated, with my curatorial sister Anaïs Castro, the exhibition Over My Black Body, one of the rare exhibitions featuring only Black artists in the province of Québec, where I am from. In all cases, we exhibited artists who went on to have critically acclaimed careers while working part-time. This often meant that, as curators, we were working overtime to ensure that we centered collaboration, and foregrounded the financial, artistic, and communication needs of the artists. These experiences informed my curatorial practice, which is rooted in care: care for artists, their ideas, their work, but also for my peers, colleagues, and the community, often people who are not invited to be part of art spaces.
Later, I was strongly encouraged to apply to a high-profile museum in the city, having been convinced that my curatorial/care practice, and my keen support of underrepresented artists was what the institution needed to better speak to its local community. However, during the short time I was employed at the museum, I quickly noticed how the institution viewed community as a currency, a way for them to gain capital in the eye of a new, different public. Also, I realized how money was driving all decisions: acquisitions needed to be big and expensive, artists I was “suggested” to acquire had to have a big social media following, art donations from wealthy collectors were considered a priority, no matter how they treated curators. Acquiring collection objects was more important than creating. There were no other Black curators at the time, but there was a clear difference between how staff were treated in comparison to the Black artists who were invited to exhibit. Finally, even though this job was well-paid, and full time, curators were overworked and exhausted, but needed to work overtime, and dedicate all their ideas and knowledge to the institution. My curatorial/care practice not only made me care for the artists and curators that I work for/ with, but also, care for myself. I understood quickly that being overworked and exhausted was hindering any collaborations, even with the best intentions.
I will end this letter by offering another lens through which we could rethink traditional models of curating. I was recently part of a panel with scholars and curators, invited to think about Museums: Better Practices, Better Futures. Abigail Celis (Université de Montréal) proposed a new model of institution where stakeholders (visitors, artists, curators, donors etc.) could retract their consent and review their limits in the participation process. Building and keeping trust, communicating ideas and problems, respecting stakeholders’ limits and boundaries as well as having ours respected, and being honest with what we can give, take, and need would allow healthier collaboration and care. If any one of these pillars are missing, the relationship may be halted or end. If we want art institutions and curating to move forward, if we want to thrive as curators, if we want our field to be supported and supportive, sustained and sustaining, anti-capitalism and BDSM may be avenues to walk on, propositions we can delve into.
You can take or leave what you want from this letter. I hope it allows you to dream awake and to be surprised by what curating could be like, if we looked at it differently than through the cognitive bias that is white, western, and capitalist.
Cheers from Montreal,
- Alice Walker, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965-2000. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022), p. 169.